Monday, May 31, 2010

Novels to films, a brief history

I have received the question, at times, about who should play characters in a film of A Pius ManThis got me thinking about adaptations. Given the last decade of novel-to-film movies, the question becomes more interesting.

Looking at the slew of Harry Potter films, filmed comic books, etc, I find that Hollywood has obviously hired people who can read.

Why do I express surprise? I can answer that with another question.

Does anyone REMEMBER the 1990s?

Let's look at a few authors who had their work turned into films.

Michael Chrichton:

Author of such noted works as Jurassic Park, Congo, and Rising Sun, he probably had the most good fortune of any author short of Stephen King in having his books translated by Hollywood. And that's the sad part.

Anyone who's read Chrichton's work will appreciate a book I saw while shopping in London. Star Trek as Written By Other Authors—the short story as “written” by Chrichton had five charts and graphs over three pages. While no one missed those in the film versions, I'm sure they missed a few other things.

In Jurassic Park, the novel, the differences were numerous and frequent. There were dozens of Velociraptors, and part of the problem was that raptors had been escaping to the mainland. The park staff was more than the seven people we saw over the course of the film, and security was so well armed, there were moments when it looked like it was Park security versus the dinosaurs in an all out war that included missiles.

Back then, there were few complaints because, despite all the differences, it was still a fun movie, and to create a full adaptation would have required a miniseries. Elements from the first novel would be scattered throughout the next two films.

The Lost World: The sequel to Jurassic Park, the novel, was... better than the filmed version. While the novel followed up on the original enemy from the first one (the problems of Jurassic Park were caused by industrial espionage), the movie decided to make the primary adversary was the stereotyped “Evil Businessman #1.” Someone decided that the movie needed to be made into an endangered species riff, complete with an action lead played by.... Matthew Vaughn, playing an ecoterrorist? And we're going to throw in a cute kid, just because Spielberg likes cute kids. There's a reason that the third film consisted of little plot, less character, and mostly running.

Rising Sun: Someone must have been asleep on the job when looking up their cultural research. I can only conclude that Hollywood wasn't paying attention the day that the Japanese Emperor declared that both blacks and women were “inferior”... why else would they change make one of the lead policemen of this murder mystery into Wesley Snipes?

Tom Clancy: The major problem here lies in one book, one that I'm sure everyone remembers as a film.

The Sum of All Fears: The premise of the novel was simple. Middle Eastern terrorists nuke the Superbowl in order to prompt the United States and the Soviet Union into World War III. It's up the National Security Adviser Jack Ryan to talk everyone down.

I will usually grant a lot of leeway to people who adapt a screenplay. A lot. The previous film had been several years before, and Harrison Ford had moved on to other things. It would have been reasonable to have gone onto later novels, changed actors, and move on. Alec Baldwin had played Jack Ryan in the first film, The Hunt for Red October, I would not have objected to bringing him back. And they had already skipped one novel—The Cardinal of the Kremlin—due to the fact that there wasn't a Kremlin anymore. Taking the character of Jack Ryan from his post as CIA director (from the previous film, Clear and Present Danger) and making him NSA director (in Debt of Honor, the first post-Cold War novel), would have been nice and easy.

Instead, the film for Sum of All Fears was a series reboot about shiny new CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck), going up against.... wait for it... Neo-Nazis. Most of whom were taken out in an ending sequence reminiscent of a Godfather film.

So, wait, the movie comes out after 9-11-01, and for some reason, terrorists from the Middle East are inferior villains? Hollywood's racism is astonishing; somehow, European bad guys are superior to any other flavor of bad guy, especially if the Europeans are evil Nazis.

Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

The Relic: The first book in their series about mysterious FBI Agent Prendergast, who seems to specialize in X-Files quality strange, without the space-alien level stupidity. The Relic was a thrilling tale about a monster in the New York Museum of Natural History. When the book was first written, the museum in real life looked like a great setting for a horror film. Part of this team consisted of a graduate student Margo Green, her wheelchair bound mentor Dr. Frock, and, of course, Special Agent Prendergast. The mystery starts with what, exactly, could have killed a museum security guard in two blows—one to rip open the chest, and one to smash the back of the head clean off.

The adversary of the novel was a genetic mutation that was about eight feet long, like a cross between a panther and bug... it had an exoskeleton like an insect's chiton, only bulletproof. It survives an encounter with a SWAT team with full assault rifles and a grenade launcher.

The film... eliminated multiple key characters (one being Prendergast, goodbye series), killed off several who were necessary for any possible sequel, replaced everyone remaining with pure cliches, and made the creature a thirty to sixty foot monstrosity. This extra large beastie is supposed to have slipped into a small employee restroom to kill a guard, when it couldn't even fit into the hallway leading to the restroom. It manages to kill an entire SWAT team because they all run like scared rabbits—possibly frightened by the horrid graphics—and it starts bleeding because it took a few rounds from a .9mm handgun (to quote the governor of California, if it bleeds, you can kill it). But, no, in this film, they had to try blowing it up with bad CGI fire.

I'm going to cheat for the next few books. They are not the nineties, but they are film adaptations that went horribly sideways.

F. Paul WilsonThe Keep.

This one is interesting. F. Paul Wilson, Fordham graduate, agnostic, and all around interesting person, who even created a character with a rabid following—one so rabid Stephen King is President of the fan club.

One of his earlier books was called The Keep. It opens in 1943, with the German High Command getting a communication from an outpost in Transylvania: “Something is killing my men.” In another area of Europe, a man awakes, and knows he has to get to The Keep before everything ends. It essentially starts out as Dracula and ends as Lord of the Rings.

Enter: the movie. The author himself has concluded that the set of The Keep had a lot of white powder going up a lot of noses. Frequently. Not even Ian McKellen could save this train wreck. The synopsis of the film is as follows: creature kills Germans in WW2; a professor in the Keep makes deal with creature. Professor's daughter sleeps with guy who comes out of nowhere. Creature kills everyone in the Keep. Guy who comes from nowhere has an entrance with lots of light, creature goes away. Credits roll. Audience goes “huh?”

Clive CusslerRaise the Titanic!

Before there was Indiana Jones, there was Clive Cussler. His main character is Dirk Pitt, one part old fashioned swashbuckler, one part nautical engineer. You may have seen the movie Sahara, made from another of his books—not a great film, but a decent popcorn movie. Better than this one.

Premise: there is an element that might be able to power a sonic-missile shield for the United States (this is the 70s). The only known sample was on board the Titanic, so, we—guess what—RAISE THE TITANIC! (this was before anyone knew how badly the ship had been totaled, so go with it). The book had everyone sail away on the resurrected vessel after a tense shootout with Soviet agents who had found out about the plan and tried to steal the precious material.

The movie, of course, had to have the Soviet bad guys come on board, and our hero scuttles the ship to make sure they don't get it. No victory, just a draw.

Movies of the day suffered from the Hollywood's idea of detente—there are no victories, only draws. If that was the only problem Raise the Titanic suffered from, it might have been salvageable. Instead, Hollywood took a fast paced, tightly written book, and turned it into a slow, ponderous mess. To tell you how bad it was, Clive Cussler saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and cried—mainly because it captured everything that he put into his own writing.

Today, I look at several adaptations—if you have major kvetches, I suggest holding off of them until my conclusions.

Lord of the Rings: Scenes lifted directly from the pages, dialogue from the novel, subplots taken from the appendix. You don't get much better than this. The major quibble I can conjure up is the buildup to the climax of the second film, The Two Towers—and I can blame that on the director's fondness for the buildup in the film Zulu, which felt like nothing but screaming “WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE.” Aside from that part of one film, I couldn't complain even if I wanted to.

Harry Potter: I read the books. They weren't bad for YA novels, and a nice parody of the English school system. The more you know about British culture, the funnier they were. Frankly, I thought the films improved on some things. Granted, some of what was left out of the films confused me... in movie three, there's no explanation for a major device of the film, or how another character knows of it. In #4, our protagonist asks why something went odd with his wand, and no answer is given. I say its odd because both “problems” could have been corrected with about three lines of dialog each. And, while confusing, no big deal. The end.

Comic books.

These are clumped together, and easy.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine: For a film that was studio mandated, it wasn't bad. Originally wanting to make Frank Miller's storyline about the mutant with anger management / memory / family issues, the people who did the film were ordered to make an origin story. Considering that the details of everyone involved in Wolverine's past were essentially turned into memory goulash, it was possibly the most comprehensible version they could come up with. I'm still confused about complaints that “Deadpool wasn't done well. He was just Ryan Renolds.” Considering that Deadpool wasn't the main character, and had, maybe, five minutes on screen, I don't think you can do anyone well in that amount of time.

The Spider-Man Films: The comic book career of Peter Parker looks like a rubric to diagnose bipolar disorder. Check. The whole Goblin family drama—mostly. Check. Parker puts on the black suit and turns from nerd to.... evil nerd. Big check. Though he could have taken tips from Neil Patrick Harris on being an evil nerd.

The biggest complaint has been about Spider Man 3, particularly on the character of Venom... well, as Sam Raimi said, “I had never read Venom in the comic books, since they came after my time. Because of that, I didn't have a natural inclination toward him. And when I read those comics, at [producer] Avi Arad's urging, I didn't understand where Venom's humanity was. I know that kids think he looks cool, and they think he's a good villain for Spider-Man. I actually didn't. What was it about Peter's own makeup that this villain represented some weaker or darker side to? Just looking like a dark version of him is not enough for me. The more I read [Venom stories], the less interested I became.” So, I get that. Though I wonder why he bothered putting Venom in a film if he didn't really like him.

Aside from that, there could be aesthetic quibbles—why they felt they had to make the Green Goblin look like a power Rangers, I don't know.

Batman Begins: I've had some people complain about the opening of the film, and how Bruce Wayne had been trained to become Batman. My usual response is that, if you read the comic books, the way it was done in the film contained the simplest, least convoluted explanation, as well as introducing the primary villain. And if there are any complaints about The Dark Knight, the best I can come up with is that the movie should have left off with catching the Joker, leaving Harvey Dent / Two-Face to be an ominous thread to be expanded into another movie. The last fifteen minutes felt odd, but having one of your key actors die in the middle of shooting can mess up a schedule a bit.

Now, aside from the above example, I will not say that modern day Hollywood adaptations are all perfect. That would be impossible. However, without lingering on minor quibbles, I can point you to several movies made recently that were based on books and made into something... different.

Shooter, based off of Stephen Hunter's novels about a marine sniper who had been framed for murder, turned into the usual conspiracy theory film about evil government employees messing around in Africa for one natural resource or another. That it starred Castro fan Danny Glover was a hint that the book would be rewritten.

[NOVEL SPOILER ALERT] The Bourne Identity was based off of Robert Ludlum's novel of the same name. A tv miniseries was made in the 1980s, starring Alan Chamberlain. The CIA had sent operative David Webb, war veteran, after assassin Carlos the Jackal, seeming to be another assassin and competitor named Jason Bourne. During the operation, he is shot in the head while fleeing a ship at sea, and awakes with amnesia. In piecing together the story of his life, he believes that he really is an assassin, the CIA thinks he has gone rogue, and the assassin he's hunting is returning the favor, and a civilian he saves from being gunned down in the crossfire is a female accountant who grows attached to him.

The movie: Boat, amnesia, perfect operative, check. Carlos the Jackal is replaced by African Dictator #1 from the nearest cliché yard, and the CIA isn't interested in listening to what happened to him, they all just want him dead. Period. Everyone involved on the CIA end dies, except for Julia Styles, using her amazing blonde powers. Bourne hooks up with a backpacking, gypsy-like female with no discernible education, intellect, or personality.

The Bourne Supremacy – The novel: elements in the government want to use David Webb to flush out another assassin, only this one has taken over the name of Jason Bourne. So, they kidnap his wife, the accountant he saved in the first novel, leaving clues that end him after this new Bourne. The CIA isn't the bad guy, but they are manipulative, which pretty much goes with the trade. Webb's other friends within the Agency lend him aide as he tries to find his wife.

The film: Still on the run as Jason Bourne, his girlfriend gets her head blown off by a Russian assassin on orders from a CIA administrator left over from an X-Men film .... Start your average revenge plot. Kill more CIA agents. Throw in some Russians, because they are obviously still the massive, intimidating threat that they were when they had a working government, now that they're taking orders from us, somehow.... huh? Julia Styles still manages to survive.

The Bourne Ultimatum—the novel is simple: Revenge of Carlos the Jackal. The film: obviously not, because they didn't have Carlos in the first film anyway.

In short, Hollywood has apparently become literate since the 90s—or, at the very least, is CAPABLE of adhering to source material such as novels and comic books. I'm certain that part of it has to do with a director appreciating the source material (Lord of the Rings), or a horde of slavering child fans who will tear them apart if they screw up the movie (the whole Harry Potter / Twilight franchise), or having the Intellectual Property owners run the studio (Marvel / WB). When you consider what has come in the past, things have improved.

Though, apparently, all bets are off when a film include Matt Damon or his clone (Mark Wahlberg). Still, even those films at least resemble the books they were based on to some degree. So, whenever you have a quibble about your favorite character in a novel / comic that's been adapted to film, or that elements had been changed, shifted or modified, always remember one very important lesson that I have learned over the years.....

It can ALWAYS be worse.

And if you don't believe me, ask the hordes of video game fans who have ever gone to see a Uwe Boll film of their favorite game.

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